Léna is also a Regional Manager for Writopia Lab whose mission is to foster joy, literacy, and critical thinking in kids and teens from all backgrounds through creative writing.

"Well, the question is, what do you want to believe? Do you want to live in a world where things are possible, or in one where they aren't?" Cin, Edges.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Writers are Observers

How can we enrich our stories through observation? Writers of all ages have a keen interest and curiosity in the human condition. Learning to observe and be present in different environments is a muscle that needs building and takes practice. I have to work on it all the time - I've always been a daydreamer with a strong imagination, but it is constantly learning how to be present that has taken my writing to another level.

Many of you know that I complement my passion for writing with teaching kids, tweens and teens, and that I have been building Writopia Lab, a NYC based award-winning program out in Westchester. (We run week long 3 hour writing intensives during the summers and holiday breaks, and weekly 1.5 hour sessions during the school year.)

This morning I took my young 9 and 10 year old Writopians on a field trip (with parental permission of course) around our lovely town of Katonah for an hour this morning. Notebooks and pencils in hand, we started on a patch of grass near the Katonah United Methodist Church where we are holding workshops. We warmed up by making up a story together about an old man in a wheelchair and his undying love for lizards.

As we sat in the grass, enjoying the gentle breezes and warm sunlight dappling through trees I asked the kids to jot down words and phrases that they associated with the environment, with being outside. Next I spoke a little about character building through observation of atmosphere.  "How would your main character feel in this moment?" We have to know absolutely everything about our characters, even if a little detail about whether or not they like the smell of fresh cut grass never makes it in the story.

Wednesday's are the beginning of the middle of our camp-like workshops, and the perfect opportunity to discuss character. These Writopians have found their story and the beginnings of a narrative arc. Their plots have been sketched out, but now is the time to see how their main character will drive the plot forward.

We imagined the ways in which our characters would walk and look at the world. Are they loose? Are they tense? Are they happy? Sad? Bewildered? They giggled as we walked and I explained how scrunching our shoulders or loosening our knees can make a difference in how people feel and behave.

We walked around town with the notion of observing our own thoughts, and then maybe exploring what our main characters might be thinking. We went into four different stores, enjoying the bewildered and amused looks we got from store owners when I asked if these young writers could practice their observation skills. It was fascinating.

Our first stop was Noka Joe's, a wonderful treat and novelty store. The kids took notes, and I made suggestions for how their observations could be incorporated into their stories. Next was the Katonah Barber Shop - the barbers really didn't know what to do with us, but they didn't say no. (It is beautifully air conditioned and smells lovely, and each of the four barbers have their names on plaques by their stations.) Next was another grooming place, but for dogs. It is a two-week old store called: Must Love Dogs, owned by Jessica Rina, and she let us come in and watch her blow dry a labra-poodle. The kids loved it. Our last stop was Kellogg's department store, where we all grooved on it's old-timey feel.

We came back to the church and opened our computers, but before we went back to our stories, I asked them to string some of the words they had written down into a piece of prose or poem. (No, it doesn't have to rhyme!) The kids spent ten - fifteen minutes choosing some of their words and composing atmospheric pieces. Heaven!

They were able to go back to their fiction with increased vigor and sense of fun and discovery. That's what writing is all about, isn't it?


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